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“ I have never seen a smiling face that was not beautiful.”

Why do we use “was” instead of “ is” here?

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We usually use Simple Past was to reflect the Present Perfect (a "past tense" usage) of preceding have [never] seen. But this isn't a matter of "valid grammar/syntax". It's a stylistic choice - which is to some extend also governed by the exact meaning in the exact context.

In OP's specific example, there would be a strong preference to "backshift" the second verb to agree with the first one, making the whole utterance more "balanced, internally consistent". For the same reason we usually backshift in contexts such as He said his name was Smith (rather than He said his name is Smith).

But there can also be a semantic aspect to the choice. The way I think this applies in OP's example is that a smiling face is a "temporary, ephemeral" thing - that could happen in the past, present, or future, but isn't normally thought of as a continuous state.

On the other hand, consider the same syntactic construction in, say,...

I have never met anyone who doesn't speak English.

It feels much more natural to me to use doesn't rather than didn't there - because to a first approximation, anyone I met who did speak English still does. Either tense choice is perfectly valid in most such contexts, but depending on the exact semantic content (and relative relevance of Past and / or Present to that content), one might be more appropriate than the other.

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Every smiling face we saw was beautiful (when we saw it).

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  • This does not answer the question of why we use the past form – David Siegel Jun 9 '19 at 0:28

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